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News How the ‘average Joe’ fell in love with photography

6 January 2015 Daniel Curtis

You probably have a camera on you right now.

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Photography is now an essential part of daily life.

It might not look or feel like a traditional camera, but the power of most people’s phones – 70% of the UK now have smart phones, which come with a built-in snapper – mean we are all budding photographers.

And now major corporations think we need more than one camera. At the latter end of 2014, HTC launched their periscope-shaped RE, a handheld camera that has no viewfinder and needs to connect to an Android device to work.

A camera with no viewfinder might sound undesirable, and there is arguably no need for another camera in your life, but small, compact devices are popular – and they have been for over 100 years. Why? Because back in 1900, another viewfinder-less camera was launched – and it started a revolution.

Before the turn of the twentieth century, cameras were anything but portable and took pictures onto large plates, rather than film. It was not until the 1880s when George Eastman, the inventor who went on to found the world-famous Eastman Kodak Company – aka Kodak, developed (please excuse the pun) flexible film. It went on sale the same year that he founded his company, limited to 100 photos and ‘stuck’ inside the first “Kodak Camera”.

Because of this, you could not just send the film off and get your photographs sent back. Instead, the entire camera was sent back to Kodak to be developed. And retailing at $25 – about £420 today – it was not a throwaway gadget (not at £4.20 a photo, that is!)

Enter the $1 Kodak Brownie, first shipped on 8 February 1900. At just £18 in today’s money, it was affordable. It also had removable film that could be processed for just $1 extra.

Frank Brownell’s first Brownie design shifted 150,000 units in just the first year. The appeal was not just the price; it was small, at well under 12cm3, and 225 grams light. And it was easy to use, as there was just a single shutter speed and no way to focus the lens.

After 245,000 were produced it was eventually discontinued in October 1901. The sheer volume of Brownies across not just America but the world had brought photography to the masses. By its discontinuation the No 1 and No 2 Brownies were being introduced to the market as successors – and so the success continued.

But the original Brownie lacked something we have all taken for granted now – a viewfinder. Even before the days of digital photography you could at least see what you were taking (even if the result was not what you had hoped for). The Brownie truly was the first and defined the point-and-shoot camera – once a picture was taken, you hoped for the best when your prints came back.

Whilst there is a throwaway element about photos people might take on the new HTC RE, the moment has still gone if the picture does not come as desired. In that sense, it is a step back to the initial days of the Brownie.

Of course, George Eastman did continue to develop and innovate his small Kodak cameras, adding viewfinders in due course. Aiming to grow his photographic film business helped him to re-shape photography forever – keeping things cheap and reliable. The Brownie also popularised the ‘snapshot’ – a picture taken without a tripod (which, considering the long exposure of the cameras, took a bit of skill and a steady hand!) The Eastman Kodak Company even gave away over 500,000 special anniversary Brownie cameras in 1930.

If it was not for Eastman’s pioneering compact cameras, we might not be where we are today. Some things have grown in size again – DSLRs, for example, or our bespoke time-lapse camera systems – and others have fallen, such as the range of GoPros and other portable devices. However, there might not be such a love for home or DIY photography as there is now, if it was not for the Kodak Brownie.

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